It’s not a reach to call Al Primo a living legend. Primo is responsible, not just for putting Eyewitness News on the map at Channel 7 in 1968, but also for revolutionizing the local news industry. He was a trailblazing manager to be sure.
But before Primo could make his splash in New York, the Pittsburgh native was making a name for himself at his hometown KDKA. During his 12 years, Primo worked up the ranks to assistant news director.
Westinghouse, which owned KDKA, ultimately named Primo to head their Philadelphia TV station—KYW.
It was there in 1965, while looking over his contract, that Primo got the idea for Eyewitness News.
“I noticed that everybody in the newsroom was a member of the AFTRA union. There was a clause in that AFTRA contract that said any member of AFTRA could write, report, and appear on the air with his own story without being paid additional compensation,” Primo says. “The reason there was just an anchorman, a weatherman, and a sportsman on television for all those years was economic.”
Using that loophole to his advantage, Primo assigned each reporter to cover their own beat.
“Putting these people on air gave their story, and them, added importance. It really captured the imagination of the Philadelphia market.”
Eyewitness News was born, as KYW would become a top-rated station.
But the true mark of success is making it in New York.
“Philadelphia was a big tryout city for Broadway in those days,” Primo admits. “You can do pretty much anything you want in Philadelphia and nobody notices.”
After languishing under the radar for three years, he was presented with the opportunity of a lifetime—helm WABC-TV in New York.
“ABC was in such poor condition at that time, I was able to obtain a very strong mandate to do pretty much exactly what I wanted,” Primo says.
He was told by network execs that he had a clean slate, meaning there were no sacred cows, and anyone could be promoted or hired.
“I’m just embarrassed to walk down Sixth Avenue,” the late ABC owner Leonard Goldenson told Primo at the time. “I just want a better product.”
While Primo brought Eyewitness News with him from the City of Brotherly Love, it needed to be uniquely New York. That would happen thanks to living in a hotel.
“Walking down the street you’d see everybody—Black people, Hispanic people, Jews, Italians, Irish, and on the air it was basically three white guys, no women, no minorities,” Primo says. “I decided that I would make Eyewitness News New York a very diverse organization.”
Primo calls it the “right thing to do,” but also the “smart thing to do.”
Thus, Primo turned his news team into a reflection of the city’s melting pot. Minorities were represented by John Johnson, Geraldo Rivera, Rose Ann Scamardella, and Melba Tolliver, just to name a few.
On November 17, 1968, Eyewitness News debuted on WABC. But not before deciding on the final element for the newscast.
“I’ve got all the people hired, got the set built, got the graphics done, and then I wanted some charging, moving, wake up, ‘get out of your chair and pay attention to the news,’ theme,” Primo recalls.
Using the resources of the extensive ABC music library, Primo and his director went to the ASCAP building, spending several hours searching for their opening theme. When they got to the soundtrack from Cool Hand Luke, Primo knew he found his sound.
“There was this one little section that was exactly right, [a] very throbbing, pulsating section,” Primo remembers. “But I think it was only about 12 seconds long.”
That was easily remedied by looping it several times.
Primo recalls the movie’s composer Lalo Schifrin, who wrote scores for many films and TV themes, including Mission: Impossible, saying he got more questions and reaction to the Tar Sequence from Cool Hand Luke largely because of its Eyewitness News notoriety heard on ABC stations across the country.
But even with the pounding music, Eyewitness News couldn’t hit its stride on WABC until Primo could unite the perfect anchor team with “Circle 7” correspondents and the “happy talk,” a phrase that Primo takes offense with.
“When [Roger Grimsby] was throwing to the sports guy or throwing it to the weather guy, or they were throwing back to him, there was always kind of a witty comment, which worked very well. It just lightened things up a bit.” Primo recalls.
He says journalists tried to put a slick label on the WABC newscasts.
“…When he was introducing Geraldo or Melba with a story, or any other reporter, it was very straight…Everybody connected with Eyewitness News has always felt in their heart that that was somewhat unfair,” Primo adds.
Already at WABC prior to Primo’s arrival in 1968, Grimsby was teamed with former WCBS (and future Channel 9) anchor Tom Dunn. (Dunn was fired for being named in a criminal investigation involving a real estate scam.)
Primo began the process of finding the right on-air partner for the hard-edged, caustic, Grimsby.
“The little known fact is that we tried about three or four anchors with him,” Primo says. “…Roger was so strong that the people sitting next to him really became just like him in terms of their presentation.
“As I used to say, ‘I tried to soften Roger Grimsby, and I wound up getting two Roger Grimsbys,’” Primo admits. “No ones gonna watch that.”
So Primo went back to the future reaching out to former WABC anchor, and current network London bureau chief—Bill Beutel. He paid his two-week vacation to have a trial run with Grimsby.
“Everybody I put aside Roger, becomes Roger,” Primo told Beutel on that initial phone call. “And I don’t even want you to come here if you can’t be yourself.”
Primo says Beutel was able to maintain his individuality, calling their partnership, which would last 16 years, “magical.”
For those who missed it in 1970, Primo says chemistry between the anchors took place “instantly.”
But even for these already accomplished pros, Primo took steps to ensure they wouldn’t just “mail it in” each evening. He got them each a shift anchoring in the afternoon on the ABC Radio Network.
“I was thrilled to expose them to such a big audience, and really kind of get read into the day’s news.” Primo says.
In short order, Eyewitness News would become the highest-rated newscast.
“We did a lot of things that just were not done before in this very traditional market,” Primo remembers. “NBC and CBS just kept throwing money at their organizations.”
When those changes failed to work, within three years WNBC took on the “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” mentality.
“They came up with NewsCenter4 with the big set. [WNBC] really started doing Eyewitness News, which really validated what we were doing and really sent our ratings through the roof,” Primo intimates. “Channel 7 has been the number one news since I started it, to this day… No one has beaten Eyewitness News ever.”
While it was no easy task, Primo did single out a few favorites from the glory days of WABC.
“Of course, Melba Tolliver turned into be a big star.”
But in 1975, Eyewitness News turned into a “big star,” as Scamardella got immortalized on Saturday Night Live in a recurring Gilda Radner parody.
“That’s when we kind of figured, ‘Hey, we’re making an impact.’”
Back on their program, Rivera saw his stock soar with the 1972 expose of the conditions at Willowbrook State School, winning a prestigious Peabody Award for Rivera and Primo.
“I’m very proud of that story, that we broke, and kept it on the air … and forever changed the way mentally challenged people are treated in America,” Primo says.
The news team became such a well-oiled machine that firings were rare during Primo’s tenure at WABC. In fact, other than Dunn, only one staffer was dismissed by Primo—weatherman Tex Antoine.
The colorful Antoine was with WABC for a decade. A diabetic and creature of habit, Antoine would go to the same German restaurant every night.
Primo says his weatherman would have a glass of wine during the dinner break prior to the 11 p.m. newscast. Occasionally, someone would buy him an additional glass.
The diabetes caused his sugar levels to rise, which led Antoine to slur his words on the air “every once in a while.”
Finally, Primo scared him straight, bringing Antoine into his office and making him watch one of those slurred weather reports.
An issue of larger magnitude happened in November 1976, when his weather segment followed a horrific rape story of a young girl.
Antoine infamously said, “With rape so predominant in the news lately, it is well to remember the words of Confucius: ‘If rape is inevitable, lie back and enjoy it.’”
“[It] was just too much,” Primo admits. “Between those couple of instances and that, we had to let him go.”
Storm Field replaced Antoine five days later.
Eyewitness News would continue unphased through the 1970s and beyond. At the height of his popularity, Primo was promoted to VP of news for ABC stations.
Like Colonel Sanders did with his Kentucky Fried Chicken product to other franchisees, Primo would zigzag the country making sure the Eyewitness News concept was implemented properly.
In time, the five ABC “owned and operated” stations would become number one in their market.
For all of Primo’s success and accolades, his aspirations weren’t fulfilled with the American Broadcasting Company.
“To be perfectly honest, I thought, ‘Let me do this on the network. Put me in coach.’”
Ultimately, though, Primo was named executive producer of the nightly [Harry] Reasoner Report.
“I never got a chance to get the top job because they gave [it] to the guy who demanded to have it, and that was Roone Arledge,” Primo says. “He was a great innovator and a great sports legend, and he wanted to do news and sports—and he got it.”
Eventually, Primo, who left WABC in 1977, started his own production company. In 2002, he created Teen Kids News. It’s the Eyewitness News concept, just using teenaged talent and softer issues. (His former Eyewitness News producer Alan Weiss teams up with Primo on this project.)
The syndicated 30-minute show (seen in New York on RNN , WLNY, and Fox 5) has more than 210 television stations nationwide.
“After we send the commercial show out, we bring it back into the studio and take out all of the commercials, and make a 25-minute education version, which we distribute to about 10,000 schools every single week.”
Fond memories of the Super 70s at WABC, though, are never far behind.
“What we were trying to do was to create a family, because I was in New York all by myself and it just hit me,” Primo recalls. “There are a lot of people in New York who have no families, who have no connections, who have this cold, little apartment that they live in… I thought let’s create the news family.”
The promotions department played that fact up by creating a popular commercial welcoming Rivera to the Eyewitness News team at a Puerto Rican wedding. (see video clip below).
Even though Primo, 72, is still active, and enjoys mentoring young talent with Teen Kids News, admittedly it’s not the same.
“I miss it. It was my whole life,” Primo says. “It’s a young man’s job. I can remember sitting in that news director’s office and getting the chest pains when something goes wrong.”
As for the news business today, Primo says the Internet has become a major factor in journalism, especially with a younger online presence. However, the veteran TV news exec is hopeful that his industry will survive.
“I firmly believe in my heart that the local news and the network news will always be there, because there will always be a majority of the population that wants their news edited for them,” Primo says. “They don’t want to sit around and figure out what’s the most important story.”
Photo Credits: Al Primo
1) Eyewitness News team, circa 1974, (left to right) Doug Johnson, Roger Sharp, Geraldo Rivera, Roger Grimsby, and Bill Beutel
2) Grimsby and Beutel on set with Al Primo (second from right)
3) Editor Marty Berman, Rivera, and Primo (l to r)